Unlearning old mistakes: An Indigenous youth-led participatory video project with Sc’ianew youth

Participatory video is a powerful tool for community-led research. It requires the researcher to put aside their own biases and assumptions, allowing community perspectives to shine. As a student researcher, I learned firsthand the value of participatory video when I began replicating a common mistake made by generations of ethnographic filmmakers: the desire to stage culture. 

My name is Hallie Bryant Rounthwaite and during the summer of 2023, I facilitated the creation of a participatory video as part of my master’s research at the University of Kent. I am an Ethnobotanist, which means I study the relationship between people and plants; how they are useful as food, medicine, and so much more! 

For my dissertation, I partnered with members of the Sc’ianew Nation, an Indigenous community on the west coast of Canada. I worked in this community as a youth leader for many years, so I returned to do my research with the young people, as a way of sharing what I learned in grad school. 

Sc’ianew territory is sadly being overrun by invasive plants like Scotch Broom and Himalayan Blackberry, which are reducing the availability of culturally important foods and medicines. Community members are actively working to restore the environment and revitalize native species. This project is ongoing, and it requires volunteers and funding to continue. 

Using the tools and techniques developed by InsightShare, I was able to facilitate the creation of a participatory film with Sc’ianew youth. None of the participants (including myself) had any filmmaking experience. Still, the methodology of learning through playing games made it possible for youth as young as twelve to direct, shoot and edit an 18-minute film. 

Youth interviewed Elders and community members about their use of Indigenous plants and the environmental changes they have witnessed during their lifetime. It was a meaningful project that taught the young people a new skill, while documenting the invaluable knowledge of the older generations.

The value of participatory video as a tool for positive change is evident, but there is a key moment from my project that underscores the usefulness of participatory video in research. During a session where youth and Elders were filming themselves doing culturally important cedar weaving, I began to clear away the various snacks, candies in plastic wrappers, and Gatorade bottles that were strewn across the table. I was attempting to create a more visually pleasing shot, so that the beauty of this traditional activity would not be marred by the clutter of plastic.

I was forced to reflect on my actions when a participant asked what I was doing. At that moment, I realized I was reproducing the same error that influential filmmaker Robert Flaherty made a hundred years ago with Nanook of the North. Like generations of ethnographic filmmakers before me, I was attempting to stage a cultural activity. Unknowingly and unintentionally, I was preventing this cultural activity from being represented authentically. I was trying to depict an idealized view of this “traditional” activity, while obscuring the reality of contemporary Indigenous people, whose communities have been impacted by colonialism and globalization.

This reflection caused me to stop what I was doing and take a step back, so that my participants could film this activity exactly as it was occurring. By empowering Sc’ianew youth to direct, I learned more about how they see themselves. Rather than having the exclusive power to represent my participants, they were representing themselves and their culture. 

This is what working with cedar looks like for Sc’ianew Nation in 2023: there are smartphones on the table, there are many purchased foods wrapped in plastic, and Elders and youth alike watch online tutorials to remind themselves how the practice is done. 

I believe the incorporation of participatory video greatly enhanced my research because it allowed community perspectives and values to lead, which ultimately made the project more useful to the needs of the community.

At the community screening, Elders spoke about the potential impact of this video. They suggested that it be shown to local school children and policymakers to educate them about Sc’ianew culture, and to advocate for their land rights. The outcome was better than I could have imagined. It demonstrates the strength of InsightShare’s methodology in supporting local people to make films, enabling them to make changes in their communities and share their stories with the wider public.  

To view the film, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBmRW8cen3A

For more information about the environmental restoration projects led by Sc’ianew community members, visit: https://stewardsofscianew.com/

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